Beautiful Untrue Things

It was a Friday night in February and my brother and I were seated in his turquoise Subaru, driving north on Highway 101. We were driving to our parents’ home, something we had done together dozens of times. But this time was different, though no one but the two of us could have known that anything was wrong, for as we sat, we talked, casually, punctuating the darkness with superficial conversation.

It wasn’t until we were a few blocks from the house that my brother asked me if I had any idea what was going on. I took a deep breath and let it out, verbalizing the compilation of so many years of thoughts and hunches and suspicions.

“I think dad cheated on mom,” I began. “With another man.”

The silence was so sudden, so stark; it was as though I could hear his jaw drop. He shot me an incredulous look across the front seat, not wanting to think of the possibility, much less the ramifications, of my words. But he could sense conviction in my voice. If there’s one thing he ever gave me credit for, it was the fact that I never said something unless I really truly believed it.

I’m not entirely certain when I realized my dad was gay, only that it had been a long time coming. Like a lot of things in life, it was “complicated.” I think I knew for a long time, always possessing a sense of the true, unmasked reality of things in my subconscious, but I can’t really pinpoint the moment when it clicked in my head. There was no flurried instant of realization where the fact of his gayness dawned on me suddenly. Yet it did not come as a shock when he finally exposed it. Instead, it revealed itself to me gradually, over many years, spurred on by little fragments that served as pieces of a puzzle, much larger and far more complicated than I could ever have solved in one sitting.

The fleeting instances in which the homosexuality revealed itself manifested as the off-hand remark from a friend’s mother, exclaiming that my father had such a soft and feminine side to him. Or there were the moments when his ears seemed to perk up at the mention of a homosexual friend of mine who had been discriminated against or displaced from a family home — in these situations, there was always a touch of empathy in his voice, discernible only if one knew what to listen for.

Sure, there was the time when he had too much to drink at a wedding and I witnessed him embracing another man a little too affably. There was also the instance when I surprised him by walking into his office, unannounced, and the second-guessing to come afterward, wondering if he was trolling the Casual Encounters on Craigslist in the instant before he minimized the browser window, or if that was just my imagination.

Even then, with all the uncertainty, I think a part of me knew, yet merely refused, to acknowledge it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t deal with having a gay dad. It was more a question of if anyone else in my family could swallow the idea whole. Certainly gay dads were a novelty, but not the kind of novelty my family wanted or needed. That aside, how exactly does a teenage daughter go about having the “I think dad is gay” conversation with her mother, particularly when there is no solid proof? It’s awkward and confusing and carries with it the potential to destroy a relationship, either between the two parents, or between one of them and the child. So, I kept my foregone conclusions to myself, up until the day I was forced to ascertain them.

Earlier that day, I had received a phone call from my father. These things were a regular occurrence, my parents calling randomly throughout the week: my mother to tell me about a new recipe she had tried or something funny the cats did, my father to tell me about an amusing incident at work or a new joke he’d overheard. But this time was explicitly distinct from the moment I answered the phone, because my ears were met with choked-up silence. I could tell right away that my dad was in tears.

My thoughts immediately went to a horrible place — the place where car accidents and dead parents reside. But it wasn’t that, and I was temporarily relieved to learn my parents were both alive and unharmed. And then, the words that followed — so simple and so succinct — are what caused my heart to speed up and my stomach to churn:

“Your mother and I are calling a family meeting,” he told me.

The magnitude of that statement alone was distressing. The words “family meeting” held a meaning that signified that things were not okay, not in the least. When I asked him what was wrong, he struggled through breaths to form words, but failed to provide any, eventually hanging up.

Panic set in. Possibilities swarmed through my head, and I racked my brain for some kind of answer to the question of what had happened. But nothing came to mind.

I searched through my phone, landing upon my brother’s name, and hit “call.” When he answered, his silence told me he’d experienced a phone call similar to mine.

“Do you know what this is about?” he questioned.

I shook my head slowly, and in spite of not being able to see me, he somehow knew what I was doing.

“I’m coming up tonight,” he told me firmly, decidedly. “I’ll pick you up on the way.”

Once we arrived at the house, the details of the evening were a giant blur, streaking my thoughts and surrealistically engulfing my mind. My hunch turned out to be correct, for my father had indeed slept with another man. But he insisted he was bisexual, and that it wouldn’t end my parents’ more than 30-year-long marriage.

What I do remember is a lot of crying on the part of everyone. My father cried because he was finally free of his burden, but at the cost of hurting us all. My mother cried because her heart was broken and her love had begun to be overshadowed by anger and distrust. My sister cried because she believed being gay was a sin, and her father, a sinner, was now damned to Hell. My brother cried because his role model and vision of family turned out to be false. I cried because I had suspected, I had known, and I hadn’t done a thing about it.

And of all the kids, the fallout from this would have the most damaging effect on me. Perhaps because I was the closest, distance-wise, or maybe because my relationship with them was so strong, but my parents both began to confide in me, pitting me against one another, whether they knew it or not. Within weeks, I was in therapy, and this is when I had my first true epiphany surrounding the situation.

During our first session, while providing my therapist with an overview of the story, I told him that my dad was “gay.” But before I could continue on, he cut me off.

“Why did you do that?” he questioned, pointing slowly to my hands.

“Do what?” I asked.

“You put air quotes around the word gay,” he said.

And without skipping a beat, I said, “That’s because I don’t think he’s bisexual like he claims. I think he’s gay.”

Just like that, I was finally capable of comprehending the extremity of the lie and its ramifications. Over the course of a day, the façade of my secure, middle-class, nuclear-family existence transformed into an uncertain, unsettling and unfair reality I didn’t know how to face. “My dad is gay. My dad is gay. My dad is gay.” It echoed through my head like a mantra, only its effect was opposite and its reality was far from calming.

Ultimately, my dad’s sexual identity wasn’t the problem. Nearly everyone in the family saw nothing fundamentally wrong with being gay, and we knew it didn’t change him as a person, except perhaps that he was now free to embrace that persona. Only he didn’t, at least not in public, because he had become so accustomed to a life of pretending to be straight, that it was all he knew and all he wanted to know. It’s the least anyone expects in life: to be perceived as normal.

All of a sudden, without my consent, I too became a part of the lie and its perpetuation. My father had gone from keeping this secret to himself and divulged it to all of us. It was a shared responsibility, all of us now partaking in the charade of the perfect family. The illusion of normalcy that once defined me suddenly stood in opposition to me, and instead of facing it, I was not only forced to acknowledge to myself that I didn’t fit into that ideal anymore, but I still had to keep pretending I did.

It’s a lot easier for people to say that homosexuality is acceptable when it doesn’t directly touch them or their lives — when a friend comes out as gay, or a couple is seen holding hands in the street. But when it suddenly reveals itself to have existed all this time in the shadows of one’s own life, it changes everything. Especially when it wants to stay exposed, but societal pressures force it back into obscurity, back into the lie that everyone can tolerate.

Oscar Wilde once said that lying — telling beautiful untrue things — is the proper aim of art. He also said that nature and life imitate art, and not the other way around. I guess what it amounts to is that my life and the chimera I am forced to indulge in is just another one of those beautiful untrue things. When you have that, why bother facing the ugly truth? TC mark

image – Tao Lin

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  • Leah Beckhoff

    “It’s a lot easier for people to say that homosexuality is acceptable when it doesn’t directly touch them or their lives — when a friend comes out as gay, or a couple is seen holding hands in the street. But when it suddenly reveals itself to have existed all this time in the shadows of one’s own life, it changes everything.”

    This doesn’t seem to be a matter of whether or not homosexuality is “acceptable.” It seems to be about the fact that your family has lived a lie for a very long time- a lie that most of the members of your family didn’t even have a say in. Thats whats damaging. Not that your father is gay.

    • N Looman

      I believe that is exactly what the author is saying. Its not a condemnation of queer parents or homosexuality, only a look at the pain that “family lies” have for children. Nat says, in the portion you quoted, “But when it suddenly reveals itself to have existed all this time in the shadows of one’s own life, it changes everything.”

      The problem is the lie and living the lie. Nat struggles with this. That is what this is about.

      Well done, Nat. Well voiced.

  • http://twitter.com/nwilliard Nicholas Williard (@nwilliard)

    Seems like you didn’t give any credence to the possibility that your father could in fact be bisexual. I think a lot of people would agree with the idea of a gay/straight spectrum rather than an either or scenario. I know that doesn’t matter and it’s the dishonesty that is the real problem. But I don’t think because you’re dad wanted to act out these feelings that had been nagging in his brain means that it negates the love he has or had for your mother.

  • http://linkhoarder.wordpress.com linkhoarder

    .. wow… i dont even know where to begin.

    great read though. i think i liked it.

  • http://gravatar.com/bobbilurie777 bobbilurie777

    If you haven’t seen it, PLEASE see the film “Beginners.” I really hope you will. It, too, is a beautiful, untrue thing. I’m grateful it was made and I hope it makes you feel less alone. I applaud you for your essay. Here is trailer of film (please skip commercial): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFM3AE64bgw

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/06/beautiful-untrue-things-2/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

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  • http://gravatar.com/sassiernow Anon

    Your pain and bewilderment is so evident in your writing. And without sentimentality, you have conveyed it beautifully.

  • Anon.

    This is eerily similar to what is happening in my family now, only our situation is accompanied with divorce and shame. As with your father, his “indiscretions” are to be kept a secret, not only from the world but from his kids as well. But we all know, our mother has let us in on the secret and he has vaguely spoken about it with my older sister, so we are prepared for when he finally tells us. I understand what you mean about it not being “acceptable.” It’s not in a homophobic sense, it’s in a sense that your concept of family and the entire dynamic that you grew up with is not what you thought and it’s extremely difficult to make sense of. It’s absolutely surreal and confusing and brings astoundingly conflicting emotions of intense anger for breaking the family up with his cheating, but the anger turns to guilt because the offender has been living a lie his entire life and repressing his true self out of embarrassment and fear.

    It’s been three years since we first heard of his cheating and it’s still something I don’t want to believe entirely. I wonder if he’ll ever tell us the truth, an awkward conversation I am not looking forward to, but even after three years it is still something hard to accept. Your father is supposed to be with your mother, not philandering, and especially not in the bed of another man.

    If it were a brother, or a cousin, or a close friend, it’s one thing, but your father is an entirely different pill to swallow. And it’s not that I won’t accept it, it’s a life-changing reality that I don’t know if I’m ready for. But it isn’t about me I suppose.

  • http://snookerinberlin.wordpress.com snookerinberlin

    Wow a powerful story, well told.
    My father also had an extramarital affair which ended his 22 year marriage.
    The way I see it, the problem isn’t so much the gay part, it is the lie and how it can change an entire family.
    All my best to you and your family as you work your way through this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tsdyke Thomas Dyke

    This was incredible and without a doubt one of, if not the best, things I’ve read on TC. I’m now thinking I may not read the poop article I have open in the next window. I can’t stress enough the quality of this piece. Well done Nat.

  • slattedlight

    This was a powerful and searching piece, Nat. It raises many questions too easily glossed over about sexuality, homophobia and family life today.

    Like Leah, I wonder, though, about your sense of conviction about your Dad as “really” being gay and wonder whether his bisexuality might not be so untrue at all. In this context, to assert an explicit homosexual attachment would also be to say he has no fundamental sexual and emotional attachments to your Mum that go all the way down, every bit as deeply as any other orientation with him. By the standards of a new societal ethic about how queer people should deal with their sexual desire, the general direction by society is now to insist on a kind of segregation into a clear and seperable identity – or, if you’re bisexual, to announce that *as* your identity prior to entrance into relations. But the question is whether this meets up to the larger goal of a general sexual liberation in which one’s sexual life isn’t sanctioned at the expense of one’s public and emotional life or vice versa. In that sense, perhaps it’s monogamous heteronormative family life that is the real culprit here, since it effectively disallows a bisexual subjectivity (whether sexually active or not) to be compatible with being in what is coded as a necessarily one-person, one-gender coupledom in order for it to be honest. This idea that your Dad is “really” gay and is lying to uphold a tolerable compromise for the family (since he had so much invested in a certain way of living his life) might be true but it also seems to assume a lot about the supposed artificiality of his love for your Mum (and flies in the face of the fact he’s obviously been into her sexually enough to produce three kids and stay with her for thirty years). It also suggests that the way his lived his life hasn’t *actually* been the way he’s lived it simply because he has other sexual feelings. Could it be that the societal pressures forcing his retreat back into a sort of “family-sized closet” are exactly the same ones which insist it is more “honest” to be gay and leave the family or straight and be in it but which denies the possibility of being able to truthfully be both? In terms of him “really” being gay, then, maybe things *would* have been different for him in different circumstances and he would, in those circumstances, have decided he was “only” gay and would never have had sex with a woman in his life. But why is this counterfactual situation given the weight of a greater honesty when it’s possible what he really wants now, *in this life*, is the capacity to live *both* lives – the one of his family and the one in which he’s true to himself? The question for the family, I suppose, is whether that desire can be granted. And that *is* a question for the family and about the structure of families.

    In terms of how you relate to your Dad, I think accepting your Dad as someone who can be both things – interested in men and a loving husband to your mother (with whether he acts on those other sexual feelings or not a matter for discussion and decision between your mother and him) – is to be truly family to him. And if *he* comes to decide that he actually can’t be both things, that this isn’t what he wants, or, alternatively, your Mum decides she can’t be with him because there’s no arrangement that works which makes her feel authentically happy with their relationship, it’s really the structure of the family that’s failed you here – not just social bigotries that prevented your Dad from coming out but the ongoing organization of the family as something deeply conservative and regulative of the capacities, affordances and depths of personal intimacy we can express in the world around us while still *genuinely being with one another*. The way, in other words, the ideal of the family militantly closes it forecloses the capacity to consensually and rationally accomodate any kind of polyvocality of feeling and does so, it claims, *precisely so we are able to experience what we call true love*, since said love’s emphasis is more than ever built on the equation of transcendental fidelity with a coupledom that is totally closed-off-to-the-outside (even when it’s on the inside of the one you love).

    To my mind, kinship means little unless it encompasses the actual people around you, your actual Mum, your actual Dad, not only as you think they are but as they say they want to be. So I wonder: why not assume they want to stay together? And not in a controlling sense that they ought to stay together because “they made a commitment” but out of a sense that they should have the maximum freedom to really consider staying together as a legitimate and workable option since the family itself can both stay together and change. Maybe one of the best things you could do is to help them to understand, as best you can, that it’s not your Dad’s sexual divergence from straightness that will be the most intrusive obstacle to their continued bond but rather the norms of the family structure which insist, in order for the family wholesome and “beautiful”, his sexual feelings and his familial ties can’t co-exist – except, at best, as “a lie”. In practice, that might mean he and your Mum come to the conclusion that he will have sex outside the relationship now and then. Or maybe he’s made the decision that he wants to be with your Mum in a bond of monogamy same as any bond of monogamy works (with the difference, obviously, that he will have a bisexual or maybe even just mostly gay fantasy life). Maybe he’d be happy with that, especially if he’s able to be more sexually open in his identity in an expressive sense (i.e. he can discuss his desire with other people, like most of us do, without having to act on it to authenticate its reality, same as we think and talk way more about sex than we ever will have it in any of our lives). In both ways, his bisexuality seems like it doesn’t need to be a secret in order to validate his love for the family – and if it does need to be a secret, that says something about how regressive and oppressed things still are for queer people in a world where “family values” basically means your parents can’t be full adults and the kids become de facto puritan authorities and guardians over some really fucked-up playact of repressive “stability” trussed up as wholesomeness.

    If lying is the proper aim of art, and life imitates art, maybe what’s needed here is to dare to think of the so-called “traditional” family structure in itself as “bad art” – revealed, in all its ugly truth already, as a set of unbeautiful lies – and look to make a new kind of fiction together where your family accepts itself beyond that structure as being in itself a kind of work of art for life to imitate, one where you make what society deems a lie (that you can have a Dad who comes out and stay out while remaining *in* the structure of your family) actually *work*. And it is the truth of art as something that takes what’s held to be a lie and makes it occur *as a reality*, as an actual thing we do which *really* gives us more than the purported “truths” of the real world will, that Wilde is getting at when he says that lying is art’s proper aim.

  • freetruth

    I enjoyed reading this up until the last paragraph. I’m sorry but if your father is really forcing all of you to perpetuate this lie, there is nothing “beautiful” about that. (Am I missing the point here?) What would be truly beautiful would be if all of you confronted him with honesty, and voiced your true feelings. The truth would set all of you free. Your mother would probably suffer the most because she would be losing her husband. But, personally, I’d rather be divorced than be married to a closeted homosexual. Not cute, for either of them.

  • Marissa

    i felt like i knew everything that you were trying to convey because your style of writing is so easy to relate to. the story was emotional, touching, and your conclusion and subtle explanation of the title was terrific. well done!

  • duncansomerside

    Great article. I guess I just had one thing to say about it. As an openly gay man, I understand how difficult it can be to come out. You seem like an understanding and well informed person about the gay world, it was just the lie that was the issue. Just remember that whether your dad is gay or bisexual, sexuality in the time he was younger and getting married was heterosexual and that was it. Remember he loves you all and his wife very much, he just had no other way to live except marrying a woman and having children. It is sad and hard, I am sure, but he is the same person as always, he has just had a past, like every parent.

  • Daniel

    I don’t think your father cried because he was free from his burden. You’ve emphasized that the burden remains. The moment where you tell someone you’re gay is very frightening, it’s almost a battle of spirit. When someone comes out there is also, in my mind, a type of mourning because an idea of a person has died and a new one has arisen. Which is why it’s sad, but also why it’s a moment of beauty. It’s a birth. You’ve focused on the death and stagnation.

    Everyone has their journey and this ordeal is not truly your story, it’s the story of your father. No one leads a normal life, we are surrounded by changes and I think the beauty here is not the lie, but the truth. I can imagine the blissful freedom and fleeting moments of happiness when your father went out and let his true self manifest fully. Most of this article is a description of your father’s journey and struggle. Something which you can only guess at, a level of pain, desperation and secrecy you’ll probably never experience. Your guesses and clues that something was not right do not lead to your father’s identity. They lead to the most overwhelming truth; that your imposed idea of normal life is an illusion and that you lied to yourself. Being gay and unfaithful, that certainly is your father’s lie. But this piece is about your struggle, your pain and your lie.

    No one has a normal life. There is no normal. That is your lie. And you still keep it, because when you look at your family you say to yourself that it’s not normal. It doesn’t meet the criteria of the normal lie. So you say you have to lie to keep the appearance of the normalcy-illusion. Oh dear, what a mess. Who knows what art is. Who knows what life is. Accept what’s in front of you, witness and experience it, don’t muddle its beauty with your expectations, it is much too grand for that. You said you regretted not saying something before. Are you still not brave enough to see and accept what life gives you even if it challenges you?

    Why bother facing yourself?

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